I made a composter last year that has been working pretty well:
My model for composting comes from my aunt & uncle, who have three fenced-in areas for compost. They use one for a year and then let it sit for two years. It is the epitome of low-maintenance composting: throw in your kitchen scraps and come back in a couple years.
In the desert, you can’t just have a fence. The critters will eat what they can and leave with your compost in their bellies. The rest will eventually either mummify or turn to dust and blow away. In the desert, you need a box with a lid and you need to keep it moist. The plan was to have a box that held a year’s worth of kitchen scraps that we would keep moist by dumping in the rinse water when we needed to rinse out the bucket.
And it worked. The size, 2′ x 2′ x almost 3′, was perfect. Over a year we put in a couple hundred gallons of kitchen scraps, half of a straw bale, a bunch of silage from the garden, and only enough water to keep our compost bucket from stinking, and it’s standing at 3/4 full and dropping. No turning or fussing.
But we needed a new box and I’ve just finished it, with help from my nephew Ollie:
It’s a lot bigger–4’x4’x3′–for a couple reasons. We want it to last longer and we’re expecting to have more to put in it this year. Also, I think the 2’x2’x3′ box is too small to really get cooking. My brother Damian got intensely into compost this year and inspired us to buy a compost thermometer and we found that our compost peaked at 117 degrees and usually hovered around 100, no matter what we did about the carbon/nitrogen ratio. 100 is fine for a low-maintenance composter, but if we can get it really hot just by having a bigger box, why not?
I made one other design change that I’ve never heard anyone else doing. I always wonder about the bottom corners of a rectangular composter. It seems like they will have less composting mass down there and won’t be able to heat up as much. So I dug a hole inside it to make the eventual pile more spherical:
As usual, I have no control group for this experiment, so I’ll never know if it’s helpful.
My second new composter is a little more edgy, so if you’re squeamish about urine, read no further.
In the desert, we are lucky to have two places to pee–into a septic system or onto the ground. Septics are OK, and it’s great to be able to pee inside when it’s cold outside, but there are problems. If you maintain them properly, they ferment your sewage, but it’s basically an underground landfill. The city west of Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, for example, has irrevocably poisoned one of their aquifers by letting it touch their underground “septic plume.”
Peeing outside is one of the great pleasures of living in a rural area. The problem is, the pee is still a waste product. As a kid, I figured I was watering the thirsty desert plants that I peed near, often choosing which bush by who looked the most parched. I have since proven to my satisfaction that peeing on desert bushes does not help them. I’ve peed on various bushes for various periods of time and watched how they responded and they don’t. No extra growth, no increase in blooming. If anything, the pee stunts their growth.
Then I came across the idea that urine is great fertilizer, but is too strong to go directly on plants. Usually these folks say to water it down 7:1 or so, and your plants will shoot up. I have also disproven this idea to my satisfaction.
The healthy greens on the right were watered with pure hose water. The dead greens on the left were watered for less than a week with pee watered down 20:1. Now if you are in the permaculture grapevine, you may be thinking, “Oh, that’s because you didn’t age or ferment the pee first.” OK, maybe, but don’t tell me about it. Show me a photograph of some aged-pee-watered plants next to some regular-watered plants that are not doing as well.
Now there is a rumor going around that you can make compost by peeing on straw. (Root Simple, for example.) The idea is, nitrogen from the pee plus carbon from the straw plus time equals compost. I happen to think that compost is more complicated than that, and that the benefit of compost has more to do with having the right bacterial ecology in your garden soil than just having decomposed organic matter. But the prospect of doing something useful with pee that involves peeing outside was very appealing. So I buried half a straw bale near my trailer:
Sorry about the photo–I may have taken it by headlamp after digging past dusk. Point is, I dug a hole about 2.5′ deep so my just over half a straw bale would fit in on end. I didn’t get a photo of the new finished product. Imagine the end of a straw bale–compact straw–flush with the ground.
It’s temperature has been between 80 and 100 F, and the level of the straw has dropped a few inches in the last two months. So maybe it’s making compost. If so, I get to pee outside and feel good about making compost, and maybe I’ll plant a tree near there. If not, I’m creating a slightly stinky hole in the ground that I can fill in with sand pretty easily. (And I should note here that it is much less stinky than if I’d just peed on the ground in the same spot for a couple months, which I know because I’ve done it.) Here’s what it looks like now: